Yes, Jets fans, Joe Namath had mixed feelings, too.
When the winless Jets pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the 2020 season, ending their 13-game losing streak with a 23-20 victory over the playoff-bound Rams, he was elated for the players.
As for the future of the franchise? Not so much.
The greatest quarterback in franchise history knew the team’s chances of landing Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence with the first overall pick had taken a big hit. No longer were they assured of getting him. And when the Jets made it two wins in a row with a 23-16 upset of a Browns team depleted by COVID-19 absences, their shot at Lawrence had evaporated entirely.
"It’s a twofold kind of thing," Namath told Newsday on Monday. "On the one hand, you have to feel good for the players. I was a part of a team when we had lost eight straight [in 1975], and life was miserable. After two, three, four losses — oy-yoy-yoy — and then you lose 13? It’s tough. So I was happy for the guys, seeing them after the game, seeing how happy their faces were."
"I had a side of me that was hoping to get the No. 1 draft position, yes," Namath said. "I think Trevor Lawrence is special. Jacksonville, they’re going to get a special quarterback [assuming new coach Urban Meyer takes him first overall]. It was great to see the feeling of relief for the players and I was happy for them when they won, but yeah, there was a side of me that wanted that first pick."
The Jets ended up with the second overall pick and almost certainly won’t have a shot at Lawrence. But they will be in position to take a star receiver from Namath’s alma mater: DeVonta Smith of Alabama, who won the Heisman Trophy and led the Crimson Tide with 12 catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns (all in the first half) in a 52-24 win over Ohio State in the College Football Playoff national championship game.
"You’d want him on your team anytime," Namath said. "He’s a wonderful player."
Namath believes Lawrence is the only sure bet at quarterback in this year’s draft, although he was impressed with Ohio State’s Justin Fields, who declared for the draft on Monday. "He showed me he was an extra-tough guy," Namath said. "I was impressed with his accuracy in throwing the ball."
Namath hopes newly hired coach Robert Saleh can help the Jets revive their playoff fortunes. "I’m always optimistic," he said. "From what I’ve seen of the guys who have worked with him, they all respect him. Changes are constant, and when you don’t win in sports, you need some changes. Hopefully [Saleh] is going to be a terrific leader."
Saleh’s biggest challenge will be resolving his quarterback situation. Sam Darnold remains under contract, but his regression in 2020 has forced the Jets to consider several alternatives.
One choice is to keep Darnold and use their abundant draft capital and some of their salary-cap space to build around him. Another is to trade Darnold and draft another quarterback. The third alternative is to acquire a veteran such as Jimmy Garoppolo, whom Saleh knows from their time together in San Francisco, or Houston’s Deshaun Watson, who is unhappy with the direction of the team and might ask for a trade.
Namath said he trusts that general manager Joe Douglas will know the right thing to do, but the Hall of Fame quarterback still isn’t sold on Darnold as the long-term answer.
"I know that Sam hasn’t had the best team to work with," Namath said, "but I also know that he has misfired and thrown the ball askew. Look, we’ve all had that. I saw some mistakes mentally, but he’s a third-year player. You can make mistakes in your 12th year. I saw [Drew] Brees make mistakes [in the Saints’ playoff loss to the Bucs on Sunday]."
The biggest concern for Namath is Darnold’s decision-making process.
"There’s two plays that I’ve seen the last three years that told me something," Namath said. "There’s one play, it’s fourth-and-long and it’s the fourth quarter and he’s behind, and he ended up throwing it out of bounds intentionally. Then early this year, on first down, he’s scrambling to his right and he ran out of bounds and took a 7-yard loss. Why in the hell don’t you throw the ball away there?
"I know it happens fast, and I believe he learned from those things," Namath said. "But I know the animal. It’s between the ears out there, too. How a guy can anticipate, think fast and see things and know how to do it instinctively. Some guys do it earlier like Patrick Mahomes. His decision-making is remarkable. But Sam is still growing. He’s got a future. He’ll be around 15 years or more. We’ll see what happens. He’s got to have help."
Despite the uncertainty of what lies ahead, Namath is like any other die-hard Jets fan: He keeps the faith.
"I watch the Jets every week, I’m still a fan, and I respect that the Jets have a following of terrific fans staying with us," he said. "We haven’t been so successful on the field for a good while, but I’m always optimistic. Let’s hope it all works out."